Television Anchors

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Television Anchors

According to television news legend Walter Cronkite, the term "anchorman" was invented by Sig Mickelson, the first head of the television and radio news department at CBS. It was expressly coined for use at the political conventions of 1952, the first ever covered by modern television. These conventions were made coherent by one broadcaster who provided perspective on events and introduced reporters bringing news from various parts of the convention; in short, a man who anchored the broadcast. In the United States and other developed countries around the world, television news anchors have become the de facto source of news for much of the public. With fewer people reading newspapers, and more and more getting their information from television, television news anchors on national and local newscasts have become the people the public turns to with the question, "What happened today?" Television news anchors, with their individual quirks and inflections, help to put a human face on the news. The power of the anchor to slant or comment on the news has been a source of concern for conservative and liberal critics alike. In totalitarian systems, they are often seen as nothing more than the face of the government, reporting news which is patently false or propagandistic.

Walter Cronkite set the standard for anchors in the United States during the period when he was known as the "most trusted man in America." Cronkite was even urged to run for president at various times in his career. His sign off, "And that's the way it is," rivaled Edward R. Murrow's "Good night and good luck" as the most popular signature piece of any news person. Other significant news anchors of the 1960s included Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, who brought a partnership sensibility to the job that became a template for other newscasts. Their familiar signature—"Goodnight Chet. Good-night David"—was often invoked in both comedy and drama.

The first television news anchors were used on weather reports and national and local television newscasts. Many of the first news anchors had worked originally in radio where the news format consisted of a news "reader" announcing the news in sonorous and serious tones. This immediately translated to television, where a clock or sheet of paper were used as props to make the set design appear serious. Early local television news instituted the "anchor" as the centerpiece of the show, delivering news, sports, and weather. It was only late in the 1960s that news programs began to have separate segments for different types of news, each presented by its own reporter. During this period, the news anchor began to rise in prominence, since he (early anchors were almost exclusively male) was the person that attracted viewers to the channel. The most popular anchors were those who appeared trustworthy and serious.

In the 1970s, feminism began to lead to the installation of female co-anchors on many newscasts. Soon the serious reading of the news was supplemented with repartee and chat among co-anchors. News consultants, such as Frank Magid and Associates, helped to bring about a more "scientific" method of choosing news anchors based on demographic sensibilities and entertainment style. Men and women with telegenic looks and breezy ad libbing skills are used to attract viewers, while older news people with significant experience are usually retired or given reporting assignments in the field. Audiences seem to want reporters they can trust, but anchorpeople who entertain them.

The conflict caused by the changing role of the news anchor was probably best highlighted in Network (1976), Paddy Chayefsky's vivid send-up of the news industry, which presaged the merging of news and entertainment. In the film, the news anchor, after suffering a mental breakdown, returns to the news desk only to entreat his audience to "get out of their chairs, go to the window and scream, I am as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" The anchor's complaint became a popular catch phrase for the universal frustration of modern life. Ted Baxter, the fictional news anchor on the Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77), perhaps best exemplified the stereotype of the modern anchorman: the vacuous, handsome man, puffed up with self-importance and barely aware of the meaning of anything he is reading on the air.

—Jeff Ritter

Further Reading:

Cunningham, Liz. Talking Politics: Choosing the President in the Television Age. Westport, Connecticut, Praeger, 1995.

Fensch, Thomas, editor. Television News Anchors: An Anthology of Profiles of the Major Figures and Issues in United States Network Reporting. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland, 1993.

Goldberg, Robert, and Gerald Jay Goldberg. Anchors: Brokaw, Jennings, Rather and the Evening News. Secaucus, New Jersey, Carol Publishing Group, 1990.

Marlane, Judith. Women in Television News Revisited: Into the Twenty-First Century. Austin, University of Texas Press, 1999.